“In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 1:4-5)
The Not-So-Whole Story
We’re all familiar with the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It’s the one Jesus told about the fellow who couldn’t wait to get out on his own. So he decides to ask his father for an advance on his inheritance, which is basically another way of saying, “Listen, Dad, I can’t sit around forever and wait for you to die so I can get what’s coming to me. I want it now.” Despite the unthinkably dishonoring nature of this request, the father grants it. And the son takes off, putting as much distance between himself and his father as he possibly can.
With moneybags in tow, the son wanders to a faraway city to live out his own version of the good life. He arrives ready to spend his inheritance on any and every decadent activity he can think of. But the thing is, such a lifestyle can only last for so long. Eventually, the money runs out.
With nothing in the bank and nowhere left to turn, the son gets the only job he can find: taking care of pigs. In the minds of the first-century Jewish audience to which this story was being told, the very idea of a Hebrew taking care of pigs would have been offensive. After all, swine were unclean according to the law (Lev. 11:7). But remember, the offensiveness of this detail had a very specific purpose. Jesus was wanting to convey just how far this son had fallen. In fact, He includes one more detail to make matters even worse: the son is so poor and so hungry that he seriously begins to consider eating pig slop. Pig slop! This would have been more than enough to get any self-respecting Israelite thinking, “Okay, now this guy is officially scum.”
But here’s where the parable takes a turn. As the son entertains the thought of taking a bite of the slop, a lightbulb suddenly comes on. He gets to thinking, “Hey, I’ll go back home and see if Dad will hire me. I mean, his servants eat pretty well and have a decent place to live. Surely, he won’t want me for his son anymore, but maybe he’ll give me a job.” So the son heads home, practicing what he’s going to say to his father: “I’m not worthy to be your son, so make me your employee instead.”
Wait, the end?!
Getting Past The Middle
Even though we know the rest of the story, we too often live as if it ends right there. If our lives were any indication of how things turn out for the prodigal son, the credits would roll as he heads home with fingers crossed, hoping his dad will treat him as a hireling. We tend to approach our relationship with our heavenly Father like that as if we’re His employees trying to compensate for our moral and spiritual deficits. Functionally, we get stuck in the middle of the parable. Theologian Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way,
“Despite assumptions to the contrary, the reality of the love of God for us is often the last thing in the world to dawn upon us. As we fix our eyes upon ourselves, our past failures, our present guilt, it seems impossible to us that the Father could love us. Many Christians go through much of their life with [this] suspicion. Their concentration is upon their sin and failure; all their thoughts are introspective” (27).
That version of the Christian life sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We can be so discouraged by our sin and failure that we end up not being able to move past the son-seeking-employment part of the story. However, as God would have it, that is precisely what we’re being invited to do—to get past that part of the story so that we can run into the Father’s loving embrace.
But for that to happen, we need a good dose of Gospel sanity. We need to revisit the stunning reality that in eternity past, our Father chose us to be His sons and daughters. Long before we ever did anything right or wrong, He claimed us to belong in His family. Why? Because He loves us. It’s as simple as that. The Bible couldn’t be clearer: “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4-5).
Yes, our God and Father has destined us for sonship and nothing can change that. It was done “in love,” which means, though we’ve sinned in more ways than we can count, He won’t banish us to eke out the Christian life in the servant’s quarters until we can get our act together. No, we always have a place at the family dinner table. Ours is the seat in between our doting Father (Ps. 18:19) and Jesus our loving elder Brother (Heb. 2:11-12). God’s predestining love has guaranteed that seat for us now and forever.
So let’s get beyond the middle of the parable, shall we? God has arranged everything so that we can experience the best part for ourselves—the father running wildly down the road toward his son, the son being enfolded in Dad’s loving embrace, the feast on the table, and the rambunctious celebration filling the corridors of the father’s household. That’s God’s heart for us. It’s time we allow His astonishing grace to interrupt our lame speeches about making up for our sins. Quit all your self-focused introspection long enough for this life-changing reality to land upon your heart: our Father doesn’t need us to be His employees; He wants us as His own dear children, and for no other reason than because it brings His heart the greatest pleasure to see prodigals come home. He really loves us that much.